NATCHEZ, Miss. — From a rocking chair on the front porch of the American Queen, the miles slip by like molasses.
Things slow down on the Mississippi River, aboard the largest steam-powered paddlewheel boat in the world. The most pressing question at the moment? Whether to get off this rocker and attend a lecture about river history, or read more from the copy of Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” I brought along.
I opt for the talk, led by the boat’s “riverlorian,” Jerry Hay. He’s piloted boats on this river for years, written more than a dozen books about it and can answer just about any river question you’ve got.
He starts with the basics.
Steamboats have been churning up and down this river since the early 1800s. It’s 400 miles as the crow flies from New Orleans to Memphis, where this boat is headed, but the American Queen will cover 640 river miles between the two cities. At a clip averaging 6 mph, it’ll take a week to get there.
“This river is like a living thing,” Hay says. “It’s always rising or falling.”
Sadly, I’m only along for half the trip. I’ve talked my friend Gretchen into coming with me, under the agreement we’ll balance out all the relaxing and eating with a daily run. We’ve spotted a tiny (really tiny!) gym on board, and an itsy-bitsy swimming pool, but it’s not nearly big enough for laps.
That’s OK, though. Our cabin is tidy and comfortable, the crew seems eager to please, and the boat appeals a lot more than the gasp-inducing orange, purple and red-splashed spectacle of the one (cheap) ocean cruise I’ve experienced.
The American Queen, built in 1995, is based on some of the most opulent boats that plied these waters a century ago. Passengers deal cards in a lounge, walk beneath a chandelier from the World’s Fair in St. Louis and watch musical shows in the Grand Saloon, designed after the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Our trip will focus on Southern culture. Here’s how it unfolds:
We board the boat on a Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, checking in at the dock behind the Hilton Hotel near the French Quarter. We find our cabin, on the fifth deck, report for a muster drill, then explore.
The boat attracts an older crowd, but we certainly don’t mind. We meet a woman from England, a couple from Boston and others from California. Most are retired; despite the kite-flying session on the schedule, this isn’t a ship with a lot of entertainment for kids.
Passengers choose from the early or late seating for dinner. Since we’re on the late meal shift, we attend the early seating of the nightly performance. Tonight’s show, starring a respectably talented four-member cast of singers, features the music of steamboats over the decades. A little cheesy, yes, but still fun.
By the time we head back to our cabin, the rhythmic thwacking of the paddlewheel has begun.
When we wake up, we’re tied off outside Oak Alley, the famous plantation named after a row of 300-year-old oaks that leads from the house to the river.
After a morning run on the levy, I wander the grounds, half expecting to see Scarlett O’Hara herself glide past, parasol in hand. Instead, I see a couple of tourists sipping mint juleps, even though it’s not even 10 a.m. The grounds are beautiful, with gorgeous azalea gardens, but the contrast between the beauty and the horrors endured by the slaves who once toiled here makes me somber.
By early afternoon, the boat pulls away from shore. The notes of the calliope, a steam-powered pipe organ, pierce the air. When the last chords of “You Are My Sunshine,” written by former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, fade, I corner Leah Stonum, who’s at the keyboard.
“The notes are the same as a piano, but you play a little bit differently because it’s really, really loud,” says Stonum, who has been playing more than 10 years.
Curious about how things work, Gretchen and I head down to the engine room, where we meet Fred Funck, third assistant engineer. It’s his job to keep the engine running and maintain the throttle.
We awake in St. Francisville, La. After a morning run and breakfast, we catch the hop-on hop-off bus that the tour company provides at each port. It’s an easy way to get a quick overview, and a local guide narrates along the way. We stop to admire some historic homes, peruse a few antique shops and spend an hour in a local museum.
Back on board, we settle in for what we’ve dreamed of: Some good, old-fashioned rocking chair squatting.
The scenery scrolling along the banks doesn’t exactly inspire. We pass chemical plant after chemical plant, and the river bustles with barges carrying everything from scrap steel to rocks, lumber, coal, salt, molasses, and, of course, chemicals. But it’s a fascinating look at a major pipeline in our country’s economy.
We head up to the engine room to meet the captain of the boat, John Sutton. He’s been working as a river pilot for 32 years. It’s a job he describes as “hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
“You’ve got to respect the power of the Mississippi River,” he says.
Things have changed since Twain’s time, of course, and Sutton sweeps his arm over an array of radars, electronic charts and other high-tech gadgets. Steamboats back then didn’t have bow thrusters or big searchlights. I gape when an assistant presses a button and the boat’s picturesque, 100-foot smokestack bends at the waist and bows low, a trick that comes in handy when passing low bridges or power lines.
Then Sutton breaks my heart a little. That thwacking paddlewheel actually doesn’t provide all the propulsion, he admits. Two motorized engines pitch in, providing about half the boat’s power.
That news calls for a mint julep, which I sip as the sun sets. Then it’s time for the evening show and dinner, a festive tribute to old Hollywood.
Meals are Southern-themed and exquisite, with choices that range from shrimp and grits to fried oyster salads, sauteed scallops and gumbo. They also take a long time. But mingling is a highlight, and we befriend a pair of elderly swimmers at our table. We also meet an assortment of other intriguing characters.
We roll out of the dining room well fed and head to the Engine Room Bar for some action. There, we’re among a handful of late-nighters who rock and roll to a pair of enthusiastic musicians who play our every request.
We wake up in Natchez, Miss., and go for our daily run, despite the rain and cold that have dropped on us like a wet blanket. The dock is at the foot of a bluff, steps from the historic Natchez Trace.
This city is beautiful, the best stop so far, with block after block of antebellum mansions. We hop the boat’s bus to the visitor center, where we learn some background through a short documentary film. Then we head downtown for a little exploration. We tour one home, then head back to the boat for lunch.
It’s time to pack up; we’re disembarking here.
A few hours later, as we’re strolling downtown, we hear the calliope’s music in the distance. The boat is heading on up the river without us, on its way to overnight stops in Vicksburg, Helena, and, finally, Memphis. It makes me a little nostalgic.
I wish we were still on board, so I could keep on channeling Twain.